The first CRAFT farm tour of the year brought us to Goldfinch Gardens, a Certified Naturally Grown and low till farm outside of Burnsville, NC. Cedar and Ben have been farming small-scale vegetables in the South Toe Valley since 2010. Since then, they have scaled up significantly and retreated to what they describe as “a perfectly manageable size.” They lease 2.5 acres for their main garden site on Celo Community, and also rent 13 acres ½ mile away, where they rotationally pasture cows and cultivate field crops. They haven’t completely adopted no till practices, but have been working on establishing what they call ‘low till’ systems to integrate into their vegetable farm.

Organic low till permenant beds

Why low till?

Ben and Cedar were scholarshipped to attended a No-Till Workshop put on by Singing Frogs Farm in California sponsored by OGS a few years ago, which has fed their love of low till agriculture. But why low till? Because low till does a lot of things for the soil, and soil health = plant health = human health. Not only does low till help retain nutrients in the top soil and prevent leaching, but it also lowers the weed seed bank available at the surface of the soil, increases the half life of the organic matter due to lack of exposure to oxygen, and generally prevents soil and nutrient runoff. Also, the macroflora love it! Low till creates habitats for mycorrhizae, bacteria, and beneficial insects.

Low Till Farm in WNC, Goldfinch Gardens

How do you low till?

Using tools such as a chisel plow, scuffle/hoola hoes, and broadforks, Goldfinch works to build up what they call permanent raised beds that are cultivated each year. “We really love tarps and landscape fabric,” says Cedar as she reveals a portion of a low till plot that has been covered with a tarp for about a month.

General practice to reduce tillage at Goldfinch is to flail mow any organic matter on the surface before the bed is retired, cover with a tarp and let it decompose before preparing the soil with a broadfork and a tilther, fertilize the bed with compost and chicken manure, and replant. “We’re certainly not no till, but we’re low-till,” says Ben. Although the tilther does have tines and looks like a small tiller, it’s effect is only on the top few inches. They haven’t yet seen the negative effects of compaction or long-term effects on the micro life in the soil that would make it akin to tilling.

This, along with more transplanting into the surface (as heavy organic matter content on the surface of the soil makes seed propagation difficult) is helping limit the need to till at all. At this point they only till to break up new ground.

What are the results of low till?

After 2-3 weeks of cooking in the sun, the ground underneath the tarp is sparsely covered with very pale remnants of previous crops and weeds. Beneficial root exudates can be released in the soil up to months after the photosynthesizing part of the plant is gone; leaving remnants from previous crops (if they were healthy) can not only eventually break down to create air and mycelium channels, but it can also increase a new plants resistance to diseases that may already be present in the soil.

Thanks to Cedar & Ben for hosting us! Be sure to check out their useful handout. There’s still time to join WNC CRAFT for the 2019 season! See our schedule and register here!

Author: Sera Deva

Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She is the former Director of Programs & Systems Design at OGS, is the President of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.

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